Spring starts: Embracing the imperfect when planning your garden

  • Packets of vegetable seeds rest on shelves at Hadley Garden Center. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jen Smith at Amherst College, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 1/30/2020 9:41:50 AM

For their 30th-anniversary cover a few years back, the Fedco Seed Catalog jokingly depicted a farmer reading a seed catalog and sitting in front of a not-yet planted field with the caption “30 years of spring fiction.” The image perfectly captures all the possibilities of garden planning, before reality has set in. Now, in January, unrestrained by time, chores, hassles and limitations, my future garden is in its most perfect form. Sweet pea vines are flawlessly trellised, my starts are all grown or purchased at the correct time and planted before they have grown leggy or ragged from wilting too many times. Weeds have not yet overtaken the slower-growing lettuces or flowers, no pests have nibbled on my leafy greens, and I have the energy and time to harvest, cook, display and process everything I grow just as it is ready.

This, of course, is not how any of our gardens ever go; even the most perfect of growing seasons is filled with its share of pests, diseases, weeds, weeks away and too many zucchini. Despite the inevitable imperfections, I believe there is a utility in this season of optimistic planning. A new season in the garden gives us a natural restart.

Because we are growing in New England, and our window between frosts is relatively short, we have but a brief amount of time in the spring to get many of the longer season vegetables and flowers established in time for them to grow hardily enough to produce harvestable fruit or flowers. Even with snow still on the ground, farmers and gardeners will be starting up in the greenhouse any day now, depending on their own particular microclimate, growing conditions, selected crops and other factors.

I love to spend these winter weekends poring over seed catalogs as a starting point for my own garden planning. I intend to plant a few of my own starts this season, mostly for harder-to-find varieties of peppers and flowers, but like most gardeners, I generally buy starts closer to the spring planting season from local garden centers, farmers markets and farm stands. Still, I still find the glossy, colorful pages of seed catalogs a helpful inspiration as I envision my garden for the coming season.

Seed catalogs have excellent variety descriptions and good representations of the range of qualities available in different vegetable or flower varieties, whether it be color, flavor, growth habit or preferred season. My favorite catalogs are the ones based in New England, ensuring that the various options will generally be suited for our climate. My go-tos: Johnny’s, Fedco, and High Mowing Seeds. I also love to look at a few of the more specialty catalogs or websites to get variety and cooking inspiration: Totally Tomatoes; Seeds from Italy for a wide range of Italian specialty varieties; and Kitazawa Seed Company for Asian greens and vegetables.

This year I have made a list for myself of Lacinato kale, slicing tomatoes for fresh eating, Roma tomatoes to can, sweet and hot specialty peppers, culinary herbs and cut flowers. I came to this list considering the space I will have available (a 20x20 community garden plot), what I have access to outside of my own garden (abundant vegetables, some herbs, some cut flowers) and what I hope to get out of the garden this year. For me, because I have access to vegetables weekly through my CSA, I’m more drawn to specialty vegetables that are less likely to be included in my share, like the Padrón pepper, a Spanish variety that is harvested green and mildly spicy and can be quickly blistered in a hot skillet and sprinkled with sea salt for an incredible summer appetizer or snack.

I also love to grow plenty of herbs like parsley, thyme, sage, chives, basil and Thai basil. These are all incredibly easy garden plants, and access to fresh abundant herbs really elevates summer cooking like nothing else. Lastly, I enjoy growing a mix of flowers for fresh summer bouquets, and a few varieties — like statice, strawflower and globe amaranth — for drying for winter bouquets and wreaths. Flowers require a little bit of planning and foresight, as many varieties grow taller and stronger stems if they are supported by horizontal netting, but their harvest window can be broader than some other summer vegetables, and there is nothing more special than a fresh-cut garden bouquet to brighten up the house all summer. Flowers get at the heart of why I love to garden: When I’m shopping for myself at the market or grocery store, I often forgo cut flowers as a luxury, but they are one of the simple joys of the summer season, and when I grow and tend to them myself, the weekly ritual of bringing them home is even sweeter.

I would love to hear what you are planning to grow this summer in your cultivated garden, whether it be fruit, flowers, vegetables, herbs or something else. What we each plan to grow is such a window into how we eat and live and what we value and find special. I hope you, too, are reveling in this season of possibility and planning for the inevitably imperfect abundance to come.

Jen Smith is a farmer and gardener currently working as the manager of the biology greenhouses at Amherst College. Jen co-founded Crimson & Clover Farm in Florence and farmed there for several years before beginning her work at Amherst. She lives in Leeds and can be reached at jenskillmansmith@gmail.com.


Owl Prowls at the Hitchcock Center with Dan Ziomek

Saturday, Feb. 1, 7:30-10 p.m.

Friday, Feb. 7, 7:30-10 p.m.

Members $12/Non-members $16 per night, youth 8 and older welcome with an adult, registration required.

Dress warmly and meet at the Hitchcock Center in Amherst to carpool offsite to go on a nighttime woods walk to explore for owls. Dan Ziomek is a longtime and very knowledgeable member of the Hadley Garden Center team, an expert birder and the host of the long-running “Bird Songs” show on 93.9 The River.

Orchid Show Opening Weekend, Tower Hill Botanic Garden (Boylston, Mass.)

Show runs Feb. 1 through March 31.

All-day activities on Saturday, Feb. 1 and Sunday, Feb. 2, including crafts, a book sale, face painting and tours of the orchid show, which this year also features a street art show with graffiti artist Croc giving an artist talk at 11 a.m. both days.

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